During the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats could easily entangle themselves in the never-ending web of Trump ethical scandals, trying to pin their Republican opponents down through “guilt by association”. Every day, the President dishonors the office he holds, prompting public outcry – as well as outraged responses from Democratic lawmakers and Democrats running for office. But in swing races, where Democrats are trying to flip Republican-held seats blue, running a shadow campaign against Donald Trump – as unethical and abhorrent as most partisan Democrats find him – isn’t the best course.
The “Trump factor” isn’t as relevant in the Senate and House races that we need to flip in order to win back congress. Just as we saw in last years’ Alabama Senate race, Donald Trump was not a factor for the majority of voters. In fact, a majority of voters who felt this way voted for Doug Jones, the Democrat and winner of the Alabama special election last year to replace Jeff Sessions. We can’t deny that his decision to focus away from Trump in a state that the troubled president won by almost 30 percentage points, played a large part into his victory. Instead of playing into national politics, Jones opted for a conciliatory, Alabama-focused tone throughout his campaign
In this context, it’s easier to see why a Democrat like Joe Manchin has held on to his Senate seat in a solid “Trump state” like West Virginia. His campaign tactics and policy planks focus on issues protecting coal miners, saving social security, expanding aid to veterans, etc. – issues that the West Virginians of all political stripes see eye to eye on. Joe Manchin doesn’t have to win over New York City, San Francisco or Seattle. And if he tried, he would lose. His electorate is far to the right of the blue urban hubs.
On the flipside, Republicans fare better as presidential contenders in WV because the national Republican platform is better suited to the taste of that state than the national Democratic platform. National Republicans campaign on socially conservative issues that West Virginians agree on. If Democrats started gearing national campaigns toward West Virginia voters, they would essentially have to focus more on moderate economic issues and risk losing a large portion of the Party’s young, liberal base, while cratering enthusiasm and driving down turnout in blue states.
Congressional races focus purely on winning votes from constituents. Not only can Joe Manchin ignore the younger, more liberal wing of the national party, it is in his inherent best interest to do so. He needs to focus on his own constituents in order to edge out a victory over the Republican candidate.
In sum, you can’t run a national campaign in a local race.
When we see moderate Democrats running to flip Republican-held congressional seats in rust-belt areas, we should remember that congressional races are locally based elections. We shouldn’t expect candidates in southern appalachian states to support the kind of policies that we see as standard for east coast progressives. To win, we have to hone in on constituent-specific issues that voters want representation on. We as national Democrats need to adjust our expectations when we comment on congressional races in red states.
Democrats are most successful at flipping congressional seats when they confront specific, localized issues that average working-class voters deal with on a day-to-day basis. As disconnected as people feel from government, people do still realize that their quality of life can stem from the kinds of people they elect in government. That’s exactly why they’re concerned about health care, taxes, social security, and union strength, as demonstrated by Conor Lamb‘s victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th district special election earlier this year. In the end, it was his appeal to moderates and his focus on specific issues that mattered to them – that affected their daily lives – that earned him a win in a district that went to Trump by double digits less than two years prior.
This is not to say that we should never criticize Trump in house and senate races, but that, when we do, we should do so as a means to target constituents that will face real world side effects that will personally harm them as a result of Trump’s failures as a president. Our criticism of Trump should have some meat or substance to it. We cannot appeal to working-class voters by merely espousing platitudinous “Trump is bad” rhetoric. If Democrats are running to flip Republican-held seats in say, western Pennsylvania, they can criticize Trump substantively by focusing on how Trump’s trade war negatively impacts steel workers. Democrats flipping seats in Texas could criticize Trump’s costly and inhumane immigration policies while proposing cheaper initiatives that address border security in ways that don’t strip away human rights from refugees and asylum-seekers.
Criticisms against the GOP should be based on localized issues within the constituencies we want to flip, not by resorting to tactics of “guilt by association”. We need to address specifically how Republican politicians in these seats have harmed their constituents, instead of just blatantly comparing them to Trump.
The real challenge in November will be convincing Independents and moderates that Democrats will better represent their social and economic interests.
This shouldn’t be an impossible sell. The Democratic Party is the party of labor, freedom, and equality, and it is through targeting these values toward specific constituencies that we can win back control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in November.